Friday, November 18, 2016

Alain Resnais | Hiroshima mon amour

war and peace
by Douglas Messerli

Marguerite Duras (writer), Alain Resnais (director) Hiroshima mon amour (二十四時間の情事) Nijūyojikan'nojōji / 1959

What was to have been a documentary about the US bombing of Hiroshima at the end of World War II, in the manner of Resnais’ previous work about the Holocaust, his 1955 film Night and Fog, became something quite different. The producers, Samy Halfon and Anatole Dauman had already raised the money, in conjunction with Japanese supporters, to present a tale of the suffering after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But after working with filmmaker Chris Marker, who quickly left the project, and contemplating how he might make a film about the subject, Resnais—at that point still a short feature documentarian—could simply not imagine how to contemplate the issues beyond the very excellent documentaries, many of them Japanese, that had already been done. 
      He was ready to abandon the project, until the producers suggested that he link up with French playwright, novelist, and screenwriter Françoise Sagan. When she also turned down the project, Resnais was prepared to abandon it. However, an editor and friend of his from Night and Fog, who knew Marguerite Duras, suggested he meet with her, and, after the coincidence of a long tea, the two plotted how they might turn the documentary into a fictional film that would speak far more deeply upon the subject.

      Indeed, the final film is presented as a kind of documentary embedded in a story about the filming of just such a documentary, nested, far more profoundly, within a love story between a former Japanese military officer (Eiji Okada)—whose family died in Hiroshima—who has fallen in love with a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva), come to the city to act in a documentary on “peace.” 
     By embedding the absolutely painful photos and films of the nuclear destruction of the Japanese city within a larger story of woman who falls in love with a Japanese survivor—while she herself has previously survived being branded as a traitor in her home city of Nevers, France for having fallen in love with a German soldier during World War II—Resnais and Duras have created tale that tells us not just about the horror of the US bombing, but of the horrors of war itself, while presenting us in very specific terms of the lasting scars war has on all of its survivors, let alone the people it has brutally destroyed.
      Resnais, in short, combined genres, film documentation and narrative story-telling, to create something that in 1959 no one might quite expect, using images of horror and lovemaking simultaneously to interlink death with love, terror with pleasure. 
      Yet, this couple is already doomed, even before they meet. Both are happily married, despite their morally “dubious” pasts, and both have lived their lives through the only way they know how, by lying or simply not admitting to their own atrocities, which, after all, was based on their own needs for love or, as the Riva character admits, a “dime-store” notion of love. Isn’t heroic commitment to one’s country also a “dime-store” notion of patriotism?

       Suddenly, in the sequence of a single evening, and then a drunken traipse through the haunted city in a second, last evening, the two figures—discovering in each other a confidante to whom they can admit their errors—suffer a tortured love. Despite her early declarations that she, too, knew the horrors of Hiroshima, he mocks her: she knows nothing about Hiroshima, he declaring; “You are not endowed with memory.” But later he discovers, as she reveals her story—perhaps telling it again for the very first time, of her love for the young German soldier—that she has, in fact, suffered a fate not entirely different from those bombed by the Americans to end the War. And her empathy for the residents of his own city is not without some deep feeling. By the time they have completed their night and day confessionals, both realize that they share the same shell of emptiness that, despite their “happy” marriages (of which we get to know very little), they have suffered in order to hide the facts of their own lives.

      The Japanese man with whom the Riva character (“She” to his “He”) falls in love, is also a World War II “enemy,” just as was her German lover; and the fact that she has “slipped” again in enemy territory makes her a traitor once more; yet in that fact Resnais and Duras again reveal that love knows no boundary, and that the lines of war are opposed to those of the heart. This is, after all, a movie—as the nurse character Riva plays in her “mock” film—about peace.

       Most importantly Resnais reveals what might have been a slightly melodramatic story not with narrative pathos, but with disparate images, easily eliding the ancient city of Nevers (and even playing, without saying it, on the English-language reading of that city’s name) with the contemporary Hiroshima, which despite its horrors, has seemingly survived. Through a beautiful musical score by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco, and departmentalized cinematography by Michio Takahashi (for the Japanese settings) and Sacha Vierny (for the French), the film is a truly interlinked production, which helps us to understand these two disparate beings as individuals caught, temporarily, under the same umbrella—despite the fact that they both are rained upon.
       Given the director’s own commitment to the remembrance (and ultimate forgetting) of the past, these characters also recognize in their love for one another that they themselves are, in their relationship, both remembering and trying to forget one another. Everything in this beautiful film is about dualities: “You’re destroying me,” muses “She,” before saying, “You’re good for me.” The “He” figure recognizes that he will “remember her as the symbol of love’s forgetfulness.” As if to seal their fates, they drop into a Hiroshima bar named Casablanca, calling up the famed Rick’s American Café of World War II Morocco, which ends in the lover flying away with another.
      Both know that their two-day fling can only result in opening old wounds that will further complicate their lives. But they cannot resist themselves, each exposing the other to the immense pains which they have had to suffer, and telling stories which will perhaps help to erase their pasts—or maybe even imbue their personal memories.
       I first saw this movie as a teenager, probably at the University of Wisconsin, but I am certain I could not possibly have comprehended it. I recall only the early images of the Hiroshima horrors. But it is the love story that truly matters, and, even more importantly, the character’s own loves—man and country—that defines them, issues that we discover are of importance only with age. Or, perhaps, we realize they are not as important, as old people, as we once might have thought them to have been.
      That the great director Resnais was able to say all of this at age 37 is astounding. And seeing the movie, after all these years, again today, I was startled by the importance of this 1959 film, of which Eric Rohmer wrote:  "I think that in a few years, in ten, twenty, or thirty years, we will know whether Hiroshima mon amour was the most important film since the war, the first modern film of sound cinema.”  57 years later, I think we can safely say that, if it was not the most important, it was certainly one of the most significant films of its time, and one that has clearly held up as a masterwork over all these years.

Los Angeles, November 18, 2016

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